BUDGET DEBATE CONTRIBUTION BY THE HONORABLE ASOT MICHAEL

Mr. Speaker, Members of this Honourable House, Citizens and Residents of Antigua and Barbuda… I begin by wishing each and everyone a prosperous and blessed 2015 and congratulating the Honourable Prime Minister and Minister of Finance and his team for his sterling Budget Presentation. It was indeed one of the finest ever delivered in this house for many years. It was frank and substantiated with facts.

I am again honoured to have the opportunity to represent the people of St Peters who elected me to this Honourable House, and to stand in defense of all Antiguans and Barbudans at this most challenging time.

Mr. Speaker, I want to at the very beginning of my budget contribution to re- confirm my undying love for this country, my love for my fellow Antiguans and Barbudans and my commitment to work, to make Antigua and Barbuda a country which we all can be proud of and where we can all live in peace and prosperity.

Mr. Speaker, prior to June 12th 2014 the dreams and aspirations of our people were fast fading. Opportunities for our people to live a life of hope, a life of happiness, a life of accomplishments, a life of prosperity, were fast disappearing.

Mr. Speaker, this budget must be the people’s first stand, it must be the point where we make the necessary decisions by which the future of our people and the future of this country are restored.

Unlike the UPP Government, The Gaston Browne’s Administration understands that the people did not elect us to destroy this country; the people did not elect us to make them jobless, our people did not elect us to make them poorer, to bankrupt their businesses or to sit in tears as the banks sell their homes and repossess their cars, buses and trucks.

Mr. Speaker, the ABLP Government got a mandate to make this country better, and it should be painfully obvious to us all, that under the previous UPP Government evidence shows beyond a shadow of doubt that this country did not improve, but rather life became brutish, broke, bankrupt, jobless and, hungry.

Mr. Speaker, economic conditions had deteriorated to the point where our people could not take it anymore; they had no credible and practical plans to bring back prosperity to the land. The Government was having a party with the people’s money buying buildings of friends, hiring friends at exorbitant salaries, people were left to die at Mount St. John’s as outstanding contracts or fees were paid, $ 67 million for the fences, over a $100 million for jellybean sidewalks.

Mr. Speaker, I am here to make the case that economic and social conditions over the last 10 years had reached rock bottom and disaster was fast spreading over Antigua and Barbuda, our people were suffering and that is why it was time for a new mandate, it was time for a new team. I am confident that the Prime Minister, the Honourable Gaston Browne will stand up and make the tough decisions, to forge the political, economic and social solution needed to save this country.

MARCH 2004- JUNE 2013
These were dark days in our nation’s history… dark days of hopelessness and despair visited upon us by the men and women of the United Progressive Party whose presence in Government was not the natural consequence of the rule of law but rather the corrupt result of a manipulation of the rule of law.

These were the dark days indeed Mr. Speaker… dark days of government consumed by acts of trickery and deception relentlessly engaged to frustrate and eventually bury the public desire for fair, transparent governance and the rule of law. They even fired you unfairly Mr. Speaker for adhering to the rule of law and standing for justice. They went on to strip the Supervisor of Elections of all her powers.

Mr. Speaker and Members of the House, Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen, this is the year when the rebuilding exercise, promised to the people of Antigua and Barbuda, gallops gracefully forward. Having battled for the hearts and minds of the Antigua and Barbuda electorate, the time when the people will reasonably begin to experience the measure of excellence of our performance is quickly approaching. A term is 60 months; only seven have passed, 53 more to go. More excellence to come!

Mr. Speaker, this Budget is intended to provide a new awakening. The new administration—of which I am an integral part—is preparing to awaken the creative juices, the concealed passions, the embrace of excellence, of the Antiguan and Barbudan people. Our drive is intended to excite the passion; dredge-up the knowledge; bring forward the creativity, while relying upon the competence, the boldness, the integrity, the honesty, the strength, of the Antiguan and Barbudan people.

This Budget is intended to ignite the dynamism and the quest for dominance, displayed by our heroes; to express the ambition for excellence, inherent in our culture; to propel our leaders forward, on the journey towards solutions; and, to create an economic powerhouse, an idyllic paradise, a place of peace and tranquility that will wipe from our memories the dark decade of leadership-failure which the Antigua and Barbuda people ended seven months ago.
It is a call for action, performance, and excellence. It is a new beginning, a new chapter in the history of our country. It is a new awakening!

Mr. Speaker, we will achieve our goals despite inheriting an economy destroyed by the disaster called the UPP. The past managers left the nation’s finances in shambles; destroyed the swagger of the people by three consecutive years of negative growth; high unemployment, especially among the youth; mounting taxes, an ever-escalating high cost of living. Their shockingly poor governance included corrupt practices, a consuming sea of indebtedness and bankruptcy plaguing government, families and small businesses. What a disaster!

Mr. Speaker, we will succeed in changing the circumstances because of superior intellect, greater capacity, genuine concern for the betterment of people, a willingness to work hard, and by providing inspiration to the employees of the Government of Antigua and Barbuda.

Mr. Speaker, the world is what the world is, the size of our country is what the size is, our small size is not a limitation.  They are both simply realities for us to deal with, to face each and every challenge and winning each and every battle.

Small is nimble, small is manageable. Antigua and Barbuda is small and beautiful. The new, seven-month old government is ready for the rebuilding challenge. We are ready to keep Antigua and Barbuda beautiful by rebuilding this magnificent place that we all love.

Mr. Speaker, for it is not just about sun and sand and beaches Mr. Speaker its about a “New Brand” Its about Transforming and revolutionizing the Tourism Industry, and creating a niche that distinguishes us as the “Best”.

No excuses! The tougher the battle, the sweeter the victory.  For Great Leaders are made through the struggle, the conquest of facing down great odds, rising to every challenge and building a new dispensation.

Mr. Speaker, we will shock the World as Sir Viv. Richards did, as V.C Bird did, as Bob Marley and Mandela did, as Sir. Lester Bryant Bird did, by their sheer brilliance, in the face of massive adversity. This is the history of the ABLP, this is the legacy we inherited and this is the responsibility we pledge to fulfill.

With the election of the new ABLP government, the class of 2014, under Gaston Browne the New Prime Minister’s Leadership, a brilliant, visionary, and, exuberant leader with intellect has emerged as the nation’s fourth Prime Minister. I say to the people of Antigua and Barbuda, rise up, stand up, let us all together rise up in a new awakening, a new dawn is coming, a new era “The Dawn of a new day”. An Awakening that fuels the Antiguan and Barbudan pride, that fuels a call for that action, a call for performance, a call for excellence, in a mighty movement that will be transformational, that will transform The Ministry of Tourism and in particular the Tourism Product into the economic powerhouse of the Caribbean.

Mr. Speaker, gone are the days when you run the Ministry of tourism by remote from an Ipad or on an airplane. The spirit of our fore fathers and the great heights they achieved and kept, provide us with a superior platform for accomplishing our generational responsibilities of building a new Antigua and Barbuda, making ourselves and our country into a place greater than we met.

Mr. Speaker, we stand on the shoulders of giants; gigantic deeds and accomplishments that are expected from us; For my predecessors the Honourable Lester Bryant Bird the first Minister of Tourism and Economic Development and Energy Governor General Dr. Rodney Williams, Ambassador Bernard Sebastian Percival, Honourable Molwyn Montgomery Joseph I shall not fail them, I shall surely not fail Prime Minister Gaston Browne and the people of this country.   Mr. Speaker we will deliver.

TOURISM
Mr. Speaker, Tourism continues to be the driving force of our economy. Most of the Nation’s commercial activities and growth in GDP is driven by the industry. Antigua and Barbuda will be implementing a strategic plan for an action agenda based on sustainability, community, and heritage tourism all delivered with an authentic Antiguan and Barbudan experience.

Even the Ministry Headquarters was allowed to fall into such a poor state of   maintenance that the staff was working only half-day for several years with very little productivity.

There were serious health and safety issues pertaining to missing roof tiles, bathrooms with poor ventilation, and poor air quality. At times only 2 of the 6 AC units were operable. This contributed to the growth of mold and harmful bacteria that may have resulted in the many reports of building related illnesses among the staff.

We have since taken steps to address and rectify these poor working conditions at the Ministry.

STATE OF THE PRODUCT
Mr. Speaker, improved service delivery, Offering quality service and value for money will be hallmarks of the new brand. A strong focus on human resource management with having the right people in the right roles.

Mr. Speaker, safety and security will be paramount. There will be greater emphasis on the development of standards, their implementation and monitoring of hotels, tour operators and transportation. Development of new Events, Clean-up of the environment and beautification of the country Enhancement of our national heritage sites; Appropriate Signage are all on the action agenda.

Mr. Speaker, incorporating a focus on clean energy with all tourism investments with special emphasis for Barbuda. Raising national awareness; improving education, training and development for the sector.

ROOM STOCK
Mr. Speaker, at this juncture we inherited a product that has deteriorated to a level that has taken Antigua and Barbuda back significantly compared to our regional competitors; and that Mr. Speaker will be the recurring theme throughout my contribution. Currently we are given figures of 3,000 rooms which including villas. However if we were to use a strict approach based on the rooms that are sellable, we have just over 2,000 rooms for the entire destination.

Mr. Speaker, if you contrast this with destinations such as St Lucia and St Kitts who commenced their foray into the Tourism industry well after Antigua and Barbuda and now have over 6,000 and 2,000 rooms respectively you can see how far behind we have fallen. That is why my Government has been aggressively pursuing a strategy of new hotel investment since assuming office.

NEW TOURISM INVESTMENTS
Mr. Speaker, since coming to office in June of 2014 the Gaston Browne’s Government has signed a series of memoranda on new hotel projects and investments in the region of two billion dollars.  These projects will create thousands of Jobs and new hotel rooms, plus a significant contribution to Government’s revenue for further sustainable economic growth.

This means more disposable income for our citizens and taxes for the Government, which will improve the standard of living for all our people.

Mr. Speaker, the Sunny Hill Group has announced this year a $200 Million Dollar investment for Antigua and Barbuda. The 400-unit project will be located on a 100-acre site in the Falmouth and Bethesda areas of Antigua, land owned by CO Williams Property Development Company Limited.

This project will create over one thousand new jobs for Antiguans and Barbudans with five hundred in the construction sector and over five hundred in operation and management positions.

The new USD$150M Beaches Resort by Sandals Resorts International at Long Bay will provide up to 400 rooms, 1,000 construction jobs and 850 permanent hotel positions when completed.

Mr. Speaker, Hodges Bay Club renamed “The Resort at Hodges Bay” will be fully open in 2015. The economic impact of this USD $50 million new 79-suite resort will have a significant impact on our local economy during construction. This new resort facility will provide meaningful employment to as many as 150 persons at any given time and upwards of 200 when all phases of the development are completed.

Mr. Speaker, The Morris Bay Project an MOA was signed last July with His Excellency Sheik Tariq Faisal Alqassemi of Dubai, for a 5 star luxury hotel project valued at US $120M This project will include a Public National Park for residents.

Mr. Speaker, we now come to the Sunwing Group but before I go into the details with Sunwing group, I want to address comments by the Honourable Member for St John’s Rural West the former Prime Minister, said that “Oh we were already in discussions with Sunwing and they already started these negotiations and it was not done under the Gaston Brown Administration” Mr. Speaker I want to provide this Honourable House with the tangible facts. I have in my hand a letter that the then Minister of Tourism the Hon. John Maginley wrote to Mr. Hunter the CEO of the Sunwing group…..

Sunwing Group- the Government has signed an agreement for $ 150 Million with the Sunwing Group out of Canada to build an additional five-star hotel on adjacent property to the Royal Antiguan. The project will be built in two phases. The $75M investment in the first phase will see the construction of a “Royalton” hotel complex with 300 rooms, multiple restaurants, a casino, disco, full service spa, tennis courts and theatres. Phase two will include the $50M construction of 200 mixed-use condominiums.

Sunwing is collaborating with the TUI Travel group, the World’s leading integrated travel company with 30 million customers. As partners in the new Dieppe Bay Project TUI flights will operate from the UK, US and Canada once the project is completed.

K-CLUB
The appointment of Robert Deniro as an Economic Envoy for Antigua and Barbuda has started the process for the sale and upgrade of the former K-Club in Barbuda.  A new $250 million resort will shortly begin in Barbuda. This announcement has been well received and publicised in the international media and has positively raised our country’s profile and reputation around the world.

GUIANA ISLAND RESORTS
Mr. Speaker, this is in addition to the $1.2 Billion project for the Guiana Island Property with Chinese investment firm Yida within days of its election victory. The group has acquired the Stanford Guiana Island property at a cost of US$70M and will break ground this year.

Mr. Speaker, these are the types of investments that the Gaston Browne Government has attracted so far.

Contrast this Mr. Speaker with an example of the dolly house budgets which were presented here, in the past 10 years in this Parliament, the former Ministers of Finance should have put up their Armani and Hugo Boss suits and put on the frills and pinks of a dolly house tea party. Mr. Speaker, do you remember the big announcement of a government farm, six million and training for young people?

Mr. Speaker back then, I searched and searched and I could not find a single dollar for that programme in the 2011 budget. It was not mentioned any where it was just something made up in the dolly house tea party. Perhaps the Minister was hallucinating or simply just high on good bush tea.

Mr. Speaker, the 20 million US dollar chicken farm that they had given out land for; The proposed investor could not pay his two bedroom house rent, could not pay to brush cut an acre of land and used to be an extension officer at extension. Mr. Speaker when cocks have teeth we would have seen this investment or maybe after donkeys turn green or when pigs take flight.

Mr. Speaker, a new Investment climate has dawned upon this beautiful country of ours.  To this end my Ministry will be working with a proven and well-qualified team of experts to create a guide to investment in Antigua and Barbuda. This manual will be a detailed document intended to create a tailor-made solution complete with brand building strategies focusing on business development, strategic alliances and global market penetration. Our team of experts will develop a comprehensive plan to advance the countries investment mission and objectives, in order to promote Antigua and Barbuda’s range of business services and investment opportunities.

Mr. Speaker, these opportunities include Tourism, CIP (including legislation for incentives and concessions), Maritime Ship Registry, Yachting, a new registry of private jets, manufacturing, the free trade zone, trademarks and patents, Intellectual Property, Cooperatives and financial services (inclusive of off shore banking, gaming and IBC’s).

Mr. Speaker, the document will serve as an in-depth guide complete with listings of Banks and Financial Services, Lawyers, Accountants, Telecommunication services, Estate Agents, Insurance Brokers, Restaurants, entertainment, Healthcare Providers just to name a few.

Mr. Speaker, to accompany the handbook will be a fully integrated website that will provide links directly to our various partners and business related services. It is important to note that a similar document existed some 25 years ago under the leadership of the Hon Lester Bryant Bird.

AIRLIFT
Mr. Speaker, due to lack of adequate and saleable room stock Antigua and Barbuda has not been able to aggressively grow the airlift as much as would have been possible had this not been the case. While the current airlift from our major source markets in the USA, UK, Europe and Canada is adequate for the number of rooms, my Ministry has undertaken a series of successful negotiations with multiple airlines to ensure that there is increased air access capacity into the destination for the anticipated increase in demand. This will lead to an increase in visitor arrivals in 2015 and will support the expansion with new hotel room stock.

Mr. Speaker, direct daily flights BA from London will continue all year round. This represents an increase from 6 flights a week in summer to daily service. 3 of these flights will be Antigua turn around only and not shared with any other destination.

Virgin Atlantic will operate 4 Flights with 3 of these dedicated as Antigua turn around flights only. The new configured Virgin Aircraft will have more premium upper class seats that are the ideal fit to the high end product that Antigua and Barbuda has to offer.

Once Weekly Condor Flight from Frankfurt will continue during the winter season.

Mr. Speaker, direct daily flights from JFK New York on American Airlines along with direct daily flights from MIA will continue on American Airlines.

Delta and US Airways: Other US gateways such as Atlanta and Charlotte will be served by once weekly direct from Delta and US Airways respectively.

Mr. Speaker, Air Canada will be adding an additional flight for this winter season each Tuesday. This represents a total of 5 flights (4 from Toronto and 1 from Montreal)

WestJet will now be adding a larger Aircraft of 179 seats, which represents a 15% increase in seats from our second Canadian carrier.

The destination will also be concluding negotiations for additional Airlift from new carriers such as COPA Airlines, Avianca and other carriers to allow us to take advantage of the anticipated growth and demand for the destination with the New Airport terminal and the host of new tourism investment projects.

Mr. Speaker, I will be attending the Routes Americas Airline Conference in Denver next month where I will be meeting 16 airlines to attract new airlift to the destination in anticipation of the new terminal and new hotel projects that are coming on stream.

Mr. Speaker, similar to the Ships Registry the Government is looking to establish an airline Jet registry which would be separate and distinct from commercial Aircraft Operators holding an Air Operators Certificate (AOC).

This registry is similar to those established in the Cayman Islands and the Isle of Man which has generated millions of dollars in revenue for the government in those jurisdictions over the past 5 years.

This service caters to aircrafts owned by High Net Worth individuals who would also be potential CIP clients.  These aircrafts will also provide Antigua and Barbuda with immense marketing value by virtue of the flag being engraved on the tails of these carriers. This is the creative and innovative thinking of Gaston Browne and his Government in finding new ways to generate revenue for our country.

STAYOVER AIR ARRIVALS
The number of air arrivals to Antigua and Barbuda at the end of December 2014 was 249,316 a growth of just 2.5% on the previous year. The destination has not yet recovered from the arrival numbers of 265,841 stay over visitors in 2008. These figures are expected to increase significantly with the additional airlift and renewed marketing and focus on tourism for 2015.

While my Government will be aggressively pursing foreign direct investment, we will encourage the participation of local entrepreneurs in meaningful activities to support the economic development of the nation.

CRUISE TOURISM
Mr. Speaker, we inherited a situation where the destination had lost over 144,000 passengers a year with the loss of a major cruise line which called weekly following the Brooklyn six incident. This is a clear indication of the lack of management of the cruise sector as other destinations have experienced incidences, but with the right crisis management and personnel to communicate effectively the fallout could have been averted.

We have held initial meetings with our cruise line partners to get an assessment of the issues and in our subsequent follow ups were told in clear terms that the perception of us by the senior decision makers and executives is very poor. In fact we were told that we were the first officials at a senior Government level that they had seen in over 10 years. The last person that they had seen in an official capacity in their Corporate offices was the Hon member from St. Mary’s North the Honourable Molwyn Joseph.

A Senior cruise ship executive indicated that unlike Antigua and Barbuda they see the Minister of Tourism From St Kitts the Hon Ricky Skerritt every 3 months, which explains their significant growth in cruise ship calls which has now surpassed Antigua and Barbuda. Their feedback was “Antigua and Barbuda does not understand, appreciate or care about their business”. These meetings are critical to our negotiations with key decision makers to increase our cruise ship calls. This has become our top priority on our critical path to growing the cruise tourism sector.

ST JOHN’S DEVELOPMENT CORPORATION
Mr. Speaker, we inherited a Corporation, which was run as a personal fiefdom. No audited financial statements have been produced since 2007.

Over ECD$5M dollars were taken in loans from Norman Wexelman to assist in the development of the Airport, which has absolutely nothing to do with St. Johns Development Corporation. When this loan could not be serviced, Mr. Wexelman received a garnishee order on the Airport Authority, which was applied to all revenues that would normally come to SJDC from NewPort Antigua Ltd. Newport is a joint venture company between Mr. Wexelman and SJDC. There is absolutely NO documentation on this loan anywhere at SJDC.

Mr. Speaker, another example of the type of gross mismanagement of such a vital organization is the callous nature in which the corporation was allowed to enter into agreements.

In November 2010 the then Chairman of the Corporation entered into a Memorandum of Understanding with Caribinvest Holding Company Ltd. to undertake the development of specified areas in Heritage Quay, with the intention to erect more duty free shopping buildings.  The Developer would then own a whopping 75% shares in the Company and the SJDC would own 25% shares in the company.

It was such a disastrous agreement the subsequent Chairman Sylvester Brown launched and investigation and subsequently sought a legal opinion on the matter.

Mr. Speaker, I quote now from this legal opinion….“While a memorandum of understanding (MOU) is document usually intended to only express a common line of action between parties and often not used to express a legal commitment. In this instance it is the only document, apart from Downtown incorporation documents evidencing the intention of SJDC and Caribinvest to create legal relations and should clearly and definitively in the absence of such other documentation reflect that fact. It is indeed regrettable that for a transaction which holds such serious legal ramifications the terms evidencing the development have not been set out in a more substantive and acceptable fashion.” And if that wasn’t bad enough it goes on.

“I am of the considered view that this project to date has been undertaken with haste evidenced by certain errors of some import….the authorities will be well advised to re-examine this entire undertaking to ensure that the interests of the State are properly protected.

“The lease agreements purportedly executed are incomplete and therefore cannot be registered.  The payment of rent is central to a lease agreement; rent must be certain or capable of being calculated with certainty, and the provisions in the said agreements related to the payment of rent do not provide a definite figure nor do they provide a means by which a definite figure can be ascertained.”

“With a shaky MOU, two incomplete leases and the construction thus far, the bargaining position of the SJDC is greatly enhanced, and it is very unlikely that the Developer would bring an action for breach of the agreement, were SJDC to seek more favourable terms in this undertaking.  The willingness of the principal of Caribinvest to reconsider the rental terms for building #4, coupled with the foregoing circumstances as outlined seems to me a clear indicator that the present Chairman can insist on more favourable terms for SJDC, and by extension the State.”

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s